NatureServe Response to the Oil Spill
May 21, 2010
The April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and set in motion a potential environmental disaster. NatureServe mourns with the families whose loved ones lost their lives in this tragedy as well as with those whose lives are and will be affected by its consequences.
The release of massive amounts of oil from the deep-sea well is likely to have catastrophic effects on the people, plants, and animals of the Gulf Coast whose lives depend on rich freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems of the region. As oil enters the Gulf loop current, these destructive effects may begin to extend along the Atlantic Coast.
We strongly urge that the responsible parties implement strategies to update ecological information available to the emergency responders working along the Gulf Coast while preparing for long-term ecological recovery efforts. Such strategies must support and safeguard the native species and natural communities of the Gulf Coast as well as the human communities whose livelihoods the spill has jeopardized.
All the public and private resources mobilized to respond to this disaster will benefit from accurate scientific data and analysis of the spill’s potential impacts on at-risk species and ecosystems. A review of past spills reveals how critical baseline data are to recovery and restoration efforts. The current emergency creates an urgent need to gather, standardize, and provide federal and state officials, conservation professionals, and volunteers with access to baseline data for the Gulf Coast. Furthermore, it is essential to establish and commit to measurable restoration targets for ecosystem function rather than to focus on protecting only the most charismatic species.
NatureServe believes that the following strategies will improve the quality of the rapid but rigorous scientific evaluation that this devastating chain of events now demands.
Update sensitive area maps to guide coastal protection
Decision-makers require up-to-date biodiversity data to guide recovery and restoration efforts, and currently rely on the NOAA Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) Maps. But the data on at-risk species and ecosystems used to compile the ESI maps are as many as ten years old in coastal areas outside of Louisiana, despite the existence of more current data in state data systems. In the dynamic coastal and marine systems of the Gulf, issues of data quality could significantly hinder the assessments of the agencies and companies working to reduce or offset impacts.
The Gulf Coast contains an extraordinary amount of sensitive shoreline habitats—Louisiana alone has more than 4 million acres of coastal wetlands. Refreshing data within these systems would help establish scientifically sound priorities by highlighting areas that harbor the rarest species, particularly those most vulnerable to extinction should Gulf Coast populations be lost.
As an immediate response, NatureServe is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Interior and ESRI to provide access to up-to-date spatial data about at-risk species known to occur along the Gulf Coast. Within the next few days first responders and concerned citizens will be able to use the mapped information to understand the breadth of species—from the threatened Gulf sturgeon to the endangered West Indian manatee—that may need conservation attention to recover from the impact to their habitats.
In addition, NatureServe recommends that those leading recovery and restoration efforts move quickly to update the ESI maps and other emergency management datasets by allocating resources to conduct systematic field inventories within each affected state that can improve the quality of ecological assessments throughout the entire region.
Set measurable recovery goals
Despite the best efforts of responders to protect sensitive terrestrial, wetland, and coastal marine ecosystems, oil washing ashore will likely damage many miles of Gulf Coast shoreline. NatureServe believes that standardized scientific information about the composition and condition of these ecosystems can form the basis of scientifically credible goals for the region’s long-term recovery.
The experience of previous disasters reveals a risk that restoration efforts may lack measurable indicators for gauging both current on-site ecological conditions as well as progress towards ecologically meaningful outcomes. We have an urgent need to document the range of ecological types bearing the impact of the oil spill and to identify unaffected reference sites that can benchmark performance measures for recovery and restoration. Measurable indicators should differentiate “impaired,” “transitional,” and “sustainable” ecological conditions for a given ecosystem type, in a repeatable and scientifically valid way. They should also provide an effective means for articulating management objectives and evaluating the effectiveness of the recovery effort over time—for example, by establishing objectives to improve habitat conditions from “impaired” to “sustainable” over an agreed-upon time period.
NatureServe recommends that the goals guiding the recovery rely on locally distributed scientific data and expertise while establishing scientifically defensible evaluation criteria and performance measures for habitat restoration. Indicators for measuring ecological condition may derive from standard scientific methods like remote sensing, rapid field review, or intensive field sampling. Recovery efforts must also include on-going monitoring that evaluates progress towards defensible ecological goals and objectives.
Evaluate and map threats to freshwater species at risk of exposure
Although the stream flow of the Gulf Coast’s freshwater systems may hold the oil spill itself at bay, NatureServe expects that many upstream species are likely to face additional risks as well. Either because of their dependence on estuaries or their symbiotic relationships with species that reside in estuarine habitats, these species will be vulnerable to contamination from the spill. This is of particular concern in the southeastern U.S., a global hotspot for freshwater biodiversity and the worldwide epicenter of species richness for freshwater turtles, crayfishes, freshwater mussels, freshwater snails, stoneflies, mayflies, and subterranean cave species. The region’s abundant array of freshwater species already faces threats from other stressors like habitat loss, pollution, and introduced species.
NatureServe highly recommends that those leading the recovery document freshwater areas of conservation concern in and along the Gulf Coast by mapping the distributions of species whose life histories put them at risk from estuarine contamination. Informed estimates of the extent of likely and potential upstream impacts can guide recovery actions and establish monitoring programs capable of rapidly detecting changes in the status of the region’s numerous at-risk freshwater species.
NatureServe is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the scientific basis for effective conservation action. Through its network of 82 member programs in the United States, Canada, and Latin America, NatureServe provides a unique body of detailed biodiversity conservation information and expertise about the plants, animals, and ecosystems of the Americas.